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Larry Stone: Can Mariners Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. help make baseball cool again?

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 30, 2021

Former Seattle Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. waves to fans as he is introduced before a baseball game Friday, April 14, 2017, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
Former Seattle Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. waves to fans as he is introduced before a baseball game Friday, April 14, 2017, in Seattle. (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Any day that features an expanded role for Ken Griffey Jr. in Major League Baseball is a good one for the sport. And baseball, sagging in the public perception and steadily falling out of favor with youth, needs now more than ever a transfusion of the charisma and appeal that made Junior a true rock star in his prime.

It’s not a stretch at all, in fact, to say Griffey is the most popular and influential baseball player of the past 40 years. So let’s hope in his new position as a “senior advisor” to commissioner Rob Manfred, Griffey can find ways to make baseball cool again.

Because no one made it cooler than Griffey, who conveyed the idea that the game was fun. The Kid made people – especially kids – want to watch it, to see what incredible feat he would pull off, and to play it, to try to replicate those feats themselves. With their hat backward, of course.

Griffey, we are told, will have a special emphasis on baseball operations and youth baseball development, particularly regarding improving diversity at the amateur level.

Bravo to that, but it won’t be easy. Because, sad to say, the Griffey name doesn’t resonate with the young generation that MLB is trying to coax away from basketball and football – not to mention video games.

Look at it this way: When Griffey really hit his stride as a superstar in the early 1990s, those boys and girls who fell under his sway as baseball fanatics and Griffey worshippers are now in their 30s or even 40s. It’s their kids that baseball is after, and he will have to use the full force of his magnetic powers to make it happen.

I know from firsthand conversations over the years that Griffey has some strong ideas about how to make baseball more accessible to the public in general, and youngsters of color in particular. I did a story in 2009, on the occasion of Jackie Robinson Day (for which Griffey came up with the brilliant idea of having all players wear No. 42 on their uniforms), in which Griffey decried MLB’s lack of promotion in the African American community.

“First of all, they’ve got to start off with better commercials,” he told me back then. “The commercials are (bad). Think about it. You look at the NBA, NFL, their commercials, and they make you want to go out and play basketball, go play football. They show the excitement of the game itself. In baseball, it’s, ‘Come to the … All-Star Game.’ And that’s it. They don’t show the excitement of the game.”

Here we are 11 years later, and baseball’s promotion of the sport is still being derided as inadequate. It doesn’t help when Manfred in 2018 called out the game’s best player, Mike Trout, for not marketing himself with gusto.

The fact is that exciting players such as Trout, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuna, who should be the faces of the sport, are practically anonymous to all but the most rabid fans. Someone such as Mookie Betts has all the attributes to be a modern-day Griffey, but MLB has yet to find a way to maximize his Q-rating. Meanwhile, the NFL and NBA are teeming with players who resonate with youngsters, from LeBron James to Patrick Mahomes, and plenty in between.

Though it’s not explicitly part of his job description, maybe Griffey can give the league some marketing tips, considering no baseball player has been marketed better. He will also have to tackle the most commonly cited barrier to baseball participation, especially in the minority community – the high cost of participating in youth baseball at the travel-team level.

In an interview on the MLB Network on Friday, Griffey said he will stress the egalitarian nature of baseball when he meets with youngsters.

“It has everything,” he said. “You have to think. There’s strategy. You don’t have to be physical. You don’t have to be the biggest guy on the field, you don’t have to be the smallest guy. As long as you can run, catch and throw, you can play this game. If you’ve got heart, that’s all that really matters.”

But another thing Griffey said in the interview made me raise my eyebrows. Asked what rule change or alteration of the game he’d push with Manfred, Griffey replied, “I think it’s perfect the way it is.”

I agree with him in concept. Baseball at its essence is an exquisite, beautifully crafted game that, as a quipster once noted, has survived every attempt by the people in charge to ruin it.

But even baseball’s most rabid fans are increasingly lamenting that the game on the field has never been less appealing. Which is why I am so encouraged by the hiring not only of Griffey by MLB but also of Theo Epstein a few weeks ago as a “consultant regarding on-field matters.”

It’s a powerful one-two punch – the brilliant executive who ended curses in Boston and Chicago, and the telegenic player who once ruled the sporting landscape. And it shows that Manfred recognizes the brewing crisis.

When he resigned as Cubs president of baseball operations, Epstein pinpointed the crux of the problem: There’s not enough action in the course of a game. I’ve written before about the crushing effect of “three true outcome” baseball, where strikeouts, walks and home runs dominate like never before. Epstein not only brought that point home, he acknowledged his role in creating such a state by popularizing the analytics that directly or indirectly have led to such an outcome.

“Clearly, the strikeout rate is a little bit out of control. We need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more, and give the fans more of what they want,” Epstein said at his farewell news conference.

“Maybe there’s a way to do that through changes over time and put the game back in the hands of the players and let them do their thing on the field. I think that’s the best way to give fans more of what they want.

“The executives like me, who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual and team performance, have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game in some respects.”

There are tons of proposals, some radical, being kicked around to fix this issue, and Epstein’s job is to figure out what sort of impact they would truly have. All I know is that something has to be done to deal with the reality that games are taking far longer (an average of 3 hours, 7 minutes in 2020) and producing fewer balls in play than ever.

I believe this with all my heart: the very best way – the only way, really – to make sure Griffey succeeds in winning the hearts and minds of today’s generation is to ensure that the game they watch on their screens captures their imagination.

Only then will baseball become cool again, and Griffey’s magic can help draw them onto the diamond.

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